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To Thine Own Self Be True

June 27, 2010

I took a good bit of flack for my opinions on pesto versus “pesto”.  And that’s fine.  Mr. Sunshine and I will just have to agree to disagree.  It would be unreasonable to assume that we could see eye-to-eye on everything.  But as far as I’m concerned I’ve got Marcella Hazan and the Food Lover’s Companion backing up my assertions.

However, there is a layer of nuance to my opinion that may not have been clear.

Yes, I believe pesto is a thing.*  And while things like these should be respected, if I got myself up in arms every time someone offered a variation on a classic dish and offered it up as the real McCoy I’d never get any sleep.

It is easy for me to see why people say I get hung up on authenticity.  But if that were truly the case, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy Chipotle or General Tso’s Chicken.  Neither of which are authentic versions of their respective cuisines, but both of which can be super tasty.

Allow me to try to rectify these different viewpoints.

If the owner of Grappa ’72 hadn’t said, “I want to show the true roots of Italian cuisine, every region of Italy,” we wouldn’t be having this conversation.  Likely I would have let this infraction against pesto pass by unnoticed.  But he did.

So even if you think it is acceptable to call a spinach, walnut and “spicy goat cheese” sauce “pesto,” you cannot say that it reflects the true roots of the cuisine.  This point may have gotten lost as the post wandered into the glory of basil, especially as it is reflected in Genoese pesto.  [By the way I hate using these italics and quotation marks, but I think they are a necessary evil to keep the argument clear.  Anyhow it is time to move on.]

I try to evaluate restaurants based on the expectations they set for themselves.  Ralph’s tavern doesn’t loose any points for its lack of regional Italian authenticity.  I don’t expect authentic regional Chinese dishes from an Americanized Chinese takeout joint.

Where restaurants get into trouble is when they promise more than they deliver.  Sometimes these promises are explicit.  But these promises are often implied by the décor, service, and menu, in addition to prices.

All I want is for these things to be consistent with each other.

Athos is a good example.  Most everything about the restaurant declares itself to be an upscale fine-dining Greek restaurant.  But most of the food falls short of that mark. If the food were significantly better it could be a dynamite place.  And it’s not as if the food is bad.  It’s not.  The food would be very good in a family-style Greek restaurant.  Although for that to work in the Athos space, everything would need to be loosened up a bit and prices would need to be slashed in half.

The difficult thing is that restaurant owners have a very difficult time evaluating their food objectively.  Even the executives at Taco Bell are convinced they make great food.  Seriously.  They are absolutely convinced.  And they say that people eat there because of how good the food tastes.  I’ve worked with these people and I heard them say it with my own ears.

So I recognize that my demands are more difficult than they may seem.

And oddly, many people don’t seem to mind that restaurant food often falls short of the explicit and implicit promises made by the establishment.  But this is what I am here to do.  I am attempting to hold restaurants responsible for executing on their promises, whether they be the neighborhood pub or the high-end eatery, the authentic ethnic dive or its inauthentic mass-market clone.

On the other hand, maybe people really do mind.  It would go far to help explain the popularity of local mass-market chain restaurants.  While they may not be very good, at least they do not over-promise, overcharge and under-deliver.

[B: I know I still owe you the price comparison post. It’s on my radar.]

* I also acknowledge that it is a technique and that the word serves as a convenient shorthand for a variety of raw green sauces.  But without any modifier, such as “Sicilian” or “di Modena” it should refer to the classic combination of basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic and cheese.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    June 27, 2010 9:12 am

    I want to clarify: pesto Genoa style is the one I prefer and the only one I make, and the only thing worse than other pestos are the many “authentic” pestos sold in stores that taste awful and are often made with–gaack–soybean oil. As for Marcella Hazan, sure she’s a food goddess, but I respectfully disagree with the idea of butter in Genoese pesto.

  2. June 27, 2010 10:49 am

    That’s it.

    I’m making you a pesto with beets, napa cabbage, bacon, cottage cheese, and garlic powder.

    It might not taste good, but it’ll be worth it to see your face.

  3. Stevo permalink
    June 27, 2010 12:43 pm

    Daniel, I agree. I think Mr. Armand Lule is full of bullsh*t when he says he wants to “…show the true roots of Italian cuisine…”. He’s got mango salsa on the menu for Pete’s sake.

  4. Ellen Whitby permalink
    June 27, 2010 11:21 pm

    Let’s hear it for authenticity! There isn’t enough of it. A “real” bagel doesn’t have chocolate chips or sun-dried tomatoes in it. “Real” hummous is not made with roasted red peppers. And “real” pesto is just as you (and Hazan) describes (though the version Albany Jane has offered to make you sounds quite interesting).

    People need to be accountable – whether it’s chefs who promise “authenticity” at their establishments or legislators in NY who spend more taxpayer money than they have.

    Rah rah!!!

  5. June 28, 2010 6:32 pm

    Hmmm, I get your point and see it’s validity in that instance. Your claim that Marcella Hazan is backing up your assertions I don’t get. I’m probably quibbling (and for the record I love Marcella and she graces my cookbook shelf as well) but if you are talking authenticity then she’s not the best example in this instance since we’ve established that her pesto uses butter.

    Heh, I guess I am feeling rather fussy myself today.

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